Joint statement by German environmental and development associations on wood biomass
Forests are irreplaceable for the protection of biodiversity and our climate, they form the basis of life for people, animals and plants. Nevertheless, the global forest ecosystems are threatened. There are many reasons for this – from illegal logging to the expansion of agricultural land to the high demand for raw materials in the paper and pulp industry. As a result, forests are cleared, overexploited or converted into timber plantations with few species.
Now the forests are also coming under pressure in the name of climate protection. One reason for this is the wrong decision by the EU to classify the combustion of wood as climate-neutral. This gives the EU member states the opportunity to subsidize wood biomass for electricity and heat production as a climate protection measure.
There is a danger that the energetic use of wood biomass will continue to be promoted on a large scale in Germany. The federal government wants to bring the relevant laws and regulations in motion in 2020:
- The amendment to the Renewable Energy Sources Act is being discussed in the Bundestag. The draft law provides for higher subsidies for electricity generated from biomass and the annual expansion target is to be increased significantly from the current 200 MW to 500 MW.
- By the end of the year, the federal government wants to finalize the regulation on subsidies for renewable heat. Clear incentives for the use of wood as an energy source are also provided here.
- As part of the coal phase-out law, the federal government wants to launch a funding program for the conversion of coal-fired power plants to biomass by the end of 2020.
The pressure on the forest is not only increased by a wrong understanding of climate protection through biomass. These debates are fueled by international investors in German wood biomass power plants or the US wood pellet giant Enviva, who work at great expense as lobbyists on the political landscape in Germany.
In the German forestry sector, too, which is looking for sales opportunities for its damaged wood, voices are getting louder in favor of the industrial use of wood biomass in energy production. There is a risk that those systems once installed will be operated in the long term with imported wood biomass, even from questionable origins, after the locally available damaged wood will be used up within a few years.
The use of wood biomass as fuel for energy production is rated as problematic for the following reasons:
- Contrary to popular belief, wood combustion is not climate-neutral. The energetic use of wood contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect beyond the time periods relevant to the climate crisis. The time that forests need to recapture the carbon emissions from the energetic use of wood is usually many decades. At the same time, more intensive use reduces the ability of forests to bind carbon in the long term. In addition, burning wood produces more CO₂ per unit of energy than burning fossil fuels.
- In order to meet the raw material requirements for the wood biomass power plants, the operators go on a global shopping spree. Environmental groups from the USA or the Baltic States are alarmed already because their forests could end up as fuel in German power plants. Countries from the global south are also in focus: Vattenfall only narrowly failed with his plans to burn wood from Liberia in its Berlin power plants; and in Hamburg wood from Namibia’s bushlands is to be used for energy production.
- An increased demand for wood is not good news for German forests either. Increased logging volumes would further weaken the local forest ecosystems and impair their functions for climate protection and biodiversity. For ecological reasons, no quantities of wood are yet freely available in Germany. The annual wood growth is almost completely harvested and a substantial part of the harvested wood has been used in combustion for many years. At the same time, dead wood as an important structural element for biodiversity, nutrient availability and humus build-up is lacking in the forest . We would have to leave a lot more wood in the forest to protect the climate and species.
- The combustion of wood biomass also contradicts the principle of cascade use, to which the federal government has committed itself, among other things, in its bioeconomy strategy. According to this, wood should first be used as a material in durable products and only burned for energy production at the end of the respective life cycle.
- The use of wood biomass is only possible with massive public funding. For the conversion of the RWE coal-fired power plant in Geertruidenburg, the Netherlands, the energy giant receives more than 1.7 billion euros in subsidies. In the Federal Republic of Germany, too, investors are already speculating on generous public support for the use of biomass in energy production.
- In this context, sustainability certificates are unsuitable for adequately countering the negative effects of wood biomass combustion. Even if wood from sustainable forestry is burned, it contributes to the increase in the CO₂ content in the atmosphere and thus to the climate crisis. In addition, certificates do not prevent the further expansion of this unsustainable energy production.
We have to adapt the forest management to the planetary boundaries and handle wood as a valuable raw material carefully. Direct combustion is the worst possible solution. The politically responsible in the federal and state governments should therefore prevent the further expansion of industrial wood biomass energy production and not waste public money on this false climate protection.